28 words and phrases invented by Authors

Okay, we know that most things aren’t original. Literature has always been changing and influencing language, and some words have made it to common usage. But, this article will show you the extent of intertexuality in our lives. Hopefully, it’ll educate you too!

1. Nerd

If you were ever teased for being a nerd, then Dr Seuss is to blame. It was first used by Dr Seuss in If I ran the Zoo, and is used to mean someone clumsy. Now, it means a brainiac or swot – stereotypical glasses, dickie blow, playing chess. (This isn’t the same as a geek, which means someone who is fanatical about something e.g. manga geek. Google cleverly puts it as ‘a knowledgeable and obsessive enthusiast’)

2. Chortle

Used by Lewis Carroll in ‘Jabberwocky’ to mean a laugh, perhaps a blend of a chuckle and a snort. The tone of the poem is frivolous and playful, which is typical of a nonsense poem, and the actual word itself has no definition or meaning outside the poem.

3. Bump

This was used by Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare uses it to mean a lump on the foreheads i.e. pustule, head injury, etc. when Lady Capulet is talking about a protuberance on a cockerel. It has no apparent origin either. Now it means a thud, a fist bump or a baby bump.

4. Tween

This adjective first appeared in The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien meant it to mean how young adults who have passed teenage years are in a phase of irresponsibility. Now, it means a child between the ages of 10-12, and they have not yet hit teenage years but are going through puberty and a teen lifestyle.

5. Nymphet

Used by Vladimir Nabokov in Lolita. It means a pubescent or pre-pubescent girl around the ages of 7-15 who considered sexually attractive – and Lolita herself is Humbert’s example. The male equivalent –also coined by Nabokov – is a Faunlet.

6. Dreamscape

Used by Slyvia Plath in ‘The Ghost’s Leavetaking’ to mean a dream-landscape or ‘dreamscape’. It suggest a surreal world where reality and fantasy are blurred together, in a psychedelic frenzy. Basically, it’s a place symptomatic of the bizarre and abstract atmosphere similar to when one is dreaming.

7. Boredom

Charles Dickens in Bleak House. He used it to describe a condition of tediousness, dull or tiresome. Before that, it was never used to describe an emotion or mental frame of mind. How on earth did they describe a dull moment before Dickens?

8. Knickerbocker

Washington Irving used it in The Legend of the Sleepy Hollow as his pen name. Knickerbockers were women’s knickers that were very loose or baggy, or a type of men’s trousers. It was also a byword for Dutch aristocracy and their old-fashioned ways.

9. Freelance

Sir Walter Scott used it in Ivanhoe. Originally, it meant someone who was a medieval mercenary, meaning that the lance in question is not sworn to a lord’s service. Now it means someone who is self-employed and not committed to a particular job. The transition began in the 1860s as a figurative noun and gained verb status in 1903.

10. Yahoo

Used by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels to mean a race of filthy and displeasing people. They are primitive and obsessed with gems in the dirt that they find. When applying the term to people, it often connotes tribespeople, gypsies and other ethnic minorities. It can also be used as a sound one hollers e.g. sledging down a snowy mountain.

11. Gargantuan

Used by Francois Rabelais in The life of Gargantua and Pantagruel, which is a satire about a giant and his son. Thus the associations with gigantic proportions. The word doesn’t have any obvious roots, but instead seems to be a word entirely made up.

12. Malapropism

Used to refer to Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals, because she keeps using the wrong word, and replaces it with a homophone. The word comes from the French mal a propos which means ‘poorly placed’, so it is a misplaced word – a closer link is malapropos meaning ‘inappropriate’. It’s now a common literary device where the wrong word used creates comic outcomes. Spoonerism – which is a related term – is based on William Spooner, and he misplaced a letter, sound or phrase; ‘three cheers for our queer old dean’ (dear old queen), ‘a blushing crow’ (crushing blow) and ‘you were fighting a liar in the quadrangle’ (instead of lighting a fire) are some examples.

13. Robot

Invented by Karel Capek in Rossum’s Universal Robots, it meant people who are manufactured out of synthetic organic matter. They are not mechanical or metallic – in fact they are closer to cyborgs and clones – and even display free thought. The link between the humanoid-machine we might see today and the artificial people is that both are constructed by design. It replaced the word ‘automaton’.

14. Tintinnabulation

Edgar Allan Poe used it in his poem ‘The Bells’ to describe the lingering sound of a bell after it’s been struck. It’s synonymous with tinkling, chiming and ringing. Tintinnabulation may be derived from tinnitus, which is a ringing sound in someone’s ear(s), and tinnire which means ‘to ring’. It is perhaps one of his best-known invented words, along with hysteria.

15. Utopia

Yep, Sir Thomas More used this in his novel Utopia. The Utopia in question is a fantasy paradise island, and it means ‘no place’, so pessimistically it means that nowhere is good. Eutopos means ‘good place’ and outopos means ‘no place’. Now, a utopia is the quest to create the ideal or perfect society, or certainly one that is very desirable.

16. Runcible

In yet another “nonsense poem” Edward Lear used this term several times in his poem ‘The Owl and the Pussy Cat’. Mainly used for a ‘runcible spoon’, but other usages apply. Because it’s a nonsense word, there is no fixed meaning but it is often applied to quirky, odd or silly, or a spork when relating to cutlery.

17. Pandemonium

You can thank John Milton for causing pandemonium in Paradise Lost, as the name of a capital city in Hell. It stems from the Greek pan meaning ‘all’ and daimon meaning ‘demon’, so it translates to ‘all demons’. In its literal sense this is where all demons live, but metaphorically it’s where havoc and chaos reside. Today, it means utter havoc, panic or mayhem as people run amok.

18. Witticism

John Dryden coined this term in The state of innocence. It is a libretto, which is basically a literary opera, usually in verse form. A witticism is a funny quip which has irony, sarcasm or sharpness – i.e. one’s intellect is as sharp as one’s humour – sharp-witted. It can be a witty criticism, but is more often applied to generally mean the act or remark of wit, often as a clever and funny one-liner summary.

19. Doublespeak

This term is never actually mentioned in his novel. But, George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four coined the term doublethink, and although doublespeak is never actually used, it’s synonymous with doubletalk and so the term has become associated with Orwell. Doubletalking is speech that is deliberately ambiguous and may either be used for secrecy or innuendos, whereas doublethink is to be only half-aware of what is going on, or the truth of a situation; believing and creating lies without realising their full extent. Doublethink can also be to hold contradictory or hypocritical opinions or beliefs, but accepting both.

20. Superman

George Bernard Shaw invented superman in Man and Superman. Shaw was attempting to create the qualities of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch. Nietzsche’s ubermensch was supposed to be a man who could transcend the limits of humanity, or to be above mankind. It means someone who has extraordinary abilities or qualities, and so the original superman candidate seems to be Mendoza, with his Devilish/Mephistophlean characteristics. Now, it’s a supernatural saviour like Christ or the Superman from the comic books.

21. Blatant

Edmund Spenser coined this in The Faerie Queene as an epithet for the many-tongued monster produced by Cerberus, named as the Blatant Beast, so it became a metaphor for someone who talked nonsense or could never stop talking. It could be derived from the Scottish blatand which means bleating.

22. Cyberspace

This word also has a complex history. Whilst Verna Vinge conceptualized the idea, William Gibson first coined the term – certainly as a noun – in his short story ‘Burning Chrome’. It means virtual reality, similar to his Matrix in Neuromancer. In the 21st century, it’s used for the World Wide Web and the Internet.

23. Princess

One of the most influential writers of the English Language, Geoffrey Chaucer invented the word ‘princess’ in The Knight’s Tale. Heaven knows what they called a female heir before Chaucer then! It appears to have come from the French princesse which is a feminine form of prince.

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  1. Sometimes I’ve struggled to find the exact word to say what I want, but I’ve never thought that I needed to invent a new one!
    With ‘nymphet’ for example, Nabokov presumably thought that it made her sound even younger and more delicate than nymph would have.

    I wonder what new words could be considered common in a few decades’ time…


    1. Oh god lol, don’t think about it! I’m not saying that you absolutely have to invent a word appearing in the Collins Dictionary a few decades later David. However, it must be said that it’ll probably boost your status.


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